Katherine Ladny Mitchell
10 Helpful Writing Tips (Part 1)
Updated: Jun 8, 2018
“You have to be a little nuts to be a writer,” said the key note speaker at a conference my husband and I attended a few years ago. “Think about it,” she continued, “You invest hours and hours creating imaginary people with imaginary problems … and you may never even get paid for it.” A friend later asked me how many books I’d sold, and after I answered, she quickly calculated and declared, “Wow! You’ve made like a nickel an hour.” True. I could make far better money working at a fast-food restaurant. This sobering cost-benefit analysis can be a bit depressing if you view benefits strictly in monetary terms.
But then again, I am a little nuts.
The fact is, writing is hard. Getting published is harder. And becoming a best-selling novelist who drives a Ferrari is next to impossible. But there are other rewarding reasons to write. Some write to organize their thoughts and process experiences. Others write to convey information or deconstruct complex ideas. But for the author of fiction, writing unleashes the imagination.
I think Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, said it best when she said, “We were created to create.” There is something inherently valuable and satisfying in crafting a nebulous idea into something we can share with others. We reflect the divine by taking that which was not and bringing forth a new world. And sharing worlds is significant; it helps us understand our own. According to in The Washington Post, studies show that people who read fiction (particularly literary fiction) tend to empathize better with others. In other words, stories do our souls good. And writing stories does some souls even better.
In other words, stories do our souls good. And writing stories does some souls even better.
Not everyone wants to be a writer. But completing any creative project (be it a piece of choreography, a well-tended garden, or even a well-organized spreadsheet) is its own reward. And I can honestly say I’d rather use my free time to make a nickel an hour doing something I love rather than make a million doing anything else. (Though should my writing ever make a million, I surely won’t complain!)
So for all the other nutsy people out there, here are the top ten things I’ve learned about writing over the last decade.
1) Reading strengthens writing. Presumably one of the reasons you’re interested in writing is that you’ve enjoyed reading someone else’s. It’s helpful to reread authors you love and note how their writing keeps you engaged. Do they always end a chapter on a cliff hanger? Do they use multiple points of view? Do they discuss certain subjects that appeal to you? Are they playful? Sardonic? No one is 100% original. It’s good to have mentors and influences — so long as they point you in a positive direction.
2) What to write? Write about your passion. If you enjoy writing it, your readers will enjoy reading it. Writing is a marathon, and it’s easier to persevere through the research and editing if you like your topic. If you don’t know what your passion is, write about what makes you angry. (Thanks to friend, Lyndsay Slaten, for this tip!)
We only get angry when something threatens what we love. Anger can point to what you really value, so figure out your values and start there.
Once you have a topic, write the scene that’s in your head. While your finished product should be chronological, your writing process need not be. So if you’re excited about the ending, begin at the end. (No offense, Lewis Carroll.)
3) Inject what you know into your writing. So, you may have never traveled on a space ship or seen a dead body in person. But that doesn’t mean you can’t write about these things! This is where research comes in. And yes, even if you’re writing fiction you still need to do your research. Infusing real life details from every day characters and settings into your writing will sharpen your storytelling and resonate better with your readers. (Thanks to Patricia Sprinkle for this advice.) So if you’re writing about a big city, visit one and take note of the sounds, smells, and sights that strike you. Have an uncle Merle who won’t shut up at family gatherings? Put his most interesting traits in your character and change the name. It’s amazing how real life details enrich fiction. Plus it makes you sound like you know what you’re talking about.
4) Be free with your first draft. I used to hate writing because it always felt like lobbing clay onto a potter’s wheel; messy lumps are never encouraging. I’d always preferred rewriting — when I could start honing and polishing that shapeless mass into something striking. However, once I began to write more regularly I discovered that the initial process could be creatively liberating. I’d jot an idea down, and that idea would spark another, and then another and another … If you give yourself permission to be imperfect for the first go-round and just get your thoughts on paper (or onscreen), you’re free to have fun and experiment.
Like Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus series always tells her students, “It’s time to take chances! Make mistakes! Get messy!” On a practical note, I’ve really enjoyed using the writing program, Scrivener, because it allows me to save multiple versions of a single scene or chapter without creating a zillion separate documents. Bottom line: no one else needs to see your first draft; your first draft is for you. So have fun with it.
5) Write (at least) a paragraph a day. Remember my marathon metaphor from earlier? Running 26.2 miles (or writing an 85,000 word novel) seems impossible at first. And I’m sure I could include a cheesy baby-step truism here. But seriously. Writing requires discipline. But even a little practice — provided it’s consistent — goes a long way. I used to think I needed an uninterrupted two-hour writing session to truly let my creativity flow. But the reality is, interruptions happen — especially if you have small children in the house. On the rare occasions I actually did get two uninterrupted hours, it took me at least thirty minutes to get into the “writing groove.” (Actually, it took me that long to check my email, scroll through Facebook, and sort through dozens of Google Docs to figure out where I’d left off.)
Then my friend, Joyce McPherson — author of the Camp Hawthorne series, several biographies, and mother of nine — gave me my best writing advice ever: just write a paragraph every day and it will keep your thoughts fresh. That sounded doable. I may not write a thousand words a night, but I can probably pump out at least one paragraph before watching my current binge series. And you know what?
Paragraphs turn into pages, pages turn into chapters, and before you know it, you’ve got a real book in the making.
Plus, a paragraph isn’t too painful for the days you don’t feel like writing and would rather toss your running shoes aside to put your feet up.
Read the final 5 tips in our next blog post.
1) Kaplan, Sarah. “Does reading fiction make you a better person?” The Washington Post. July 22, 2016. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2016/07/22/does-reading-fiction-make-you-a-better-person/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.b46f37aa199c)
2) L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. Shaw (Harold) Publishers, U.S. 2009.
3) Lifestyle Integrity Coaching. (http://www.lifestyleintegrity.com/anger-is-love/)
4) Living on the Edge with Chip Ingram. "Why We All Struggle with Anger , Part 1."(https://livingontheedge.org/broadcast/why-we-all-struggle-with-anger-part-1/daily-radio#.WwN_WUgvzIU)
5) McPherson, Joyce (https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=dp_byline_sr_book_1?ie=UTF8&text=Joyce+McPherson&search-alias=books&field-author=Joyce+McPherson&sort=relevancerank
6) Sprinkle, Patricia. (http://www.patriciasprinkle.com/)
7) The Magic School Bus. PBS series. Scholastic/Nelvana. 1994.